Solution journalism: Economic discrimination in two of New Orleans top public schools

Editors Note: The following is a five-part series called “The Truth about the Big Easy” curated by Parker Kim. This series is in partnership with Via Nola Vie and aims to give transplants and locals a series look at what is happening in our local government. 


New Orleans always seems to be being left out of the national conversation. Whenever New Orleans is being mentioned it is either about a natural disaster or a report on the rampant partying going on on Bourbon. Sometimes we forget that there is so much more happening behind the scenes in our city. The floats this year at Krewe De Veux were a clear indication that there is more going on behind the curtain in the New Orleans government. From public education to infrastructure this series of articles will give you a better indication of the current state of this great city. There are so many questions that need to be answered and hopefully, this series of articles opens the curtain to why things are the way they are here maybe just a little bit. 


What exactly do hierarchical schools teach? (Photo: Pexels)

On July 16, 2003, Nelson Mandela uttered his famous words, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, to commemorate an organization working to improve education in South Africa. This signaled a global movement towards equal access to education. Even after Mandela’s speech, education inequality is felt all over the world, including in the US, the richest country in the world. The US has the largest wealth gap of all nations in the world. In the US, the top 10% of households hold 70% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 50% of households holds 2% of the nation’s wealth. This wealth gap causes economic discrimination nationwide, but most directly, right here in New Orleans. According to Bloomberg’s Gini Coefficient, New Orleans is the 2nd worst city for income inequality in the US, putting the city on par with Zambia, a country with some of the highest rates of poverty in the world. The rate at which this inequality is growing is faster than that of any other city in the US. The Garden District of New Orleans is the richest neighborhood in New Orleans. This neighborhood has a median income of $136,916 and an unemployment rate of 4.2%. This is a stark increase from the 9th ward, the poorest neighborhood in New Orleans. The 9th ward has a median household income of $30,264 and an unemployment rate of 7.3%. Large income inequality between the richest and poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans causes many issues that all stem from economic discrimination. Among these issues is disparities in education caused by economic discrimination, and in the US this issue starts as early as five. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, only 48% of poor children are ready for school by the age five. However, 75% of children from moderate to high income families are ready for school by the age of five, an uptake from their povertystricken peers. This trend continues into a child’s later education, with data showing that lowincome students are five times more likely to drop out of high school and 13 times less likely to graduate high school on time than their highincome peers. The issues that low socioeconomic class students face in school is a direct cause of the hardships these students face at home. The economic hardships faced in a student’s home life include disruptions in parenting, increase in family conflicts, and increase likelihood of depression in parents (Eamon 2005). These hardships travel beyond a student’s home life and follows them into the classroom.

The effect of these hardships is most directly shown in student test scores. In a 1998 study by Seyfried, data showed that students of low socioeconomic classes score about 10% lower on standardized testing than their higher socioeconomic class peers. Furthermore, socioeconomic status was found to be the strongest predictor of student test scores. Standardized testing can serve as an entrance exam, an achievement exam, or in some cases, a test to see if a student is eligible for a given role. The goal of standardized testing is to ensure a level, accurate exam to make comparisons among groups of students and measure any given students’ level of attainment. These tests are designed to be equal: each student is given the same questions, questions are true/ false and multiple choice to remove bias, each test is graded on the same rubric. However, these tests don’t ensure equity as they don’t consider a student socioeconomic background. The lack of consideration for a student socioeconomic background creates an implicit bias in standardized testing and perpetuates economic discrimination since socioeconomic status is the biggest determinant for a students standardized test scores. In New Orleans, the issue of economic discrimination in education is perpetuated by two of New Orleans’ top public schools: Benjamin Franklin High School and Lusher Charter School. Benjamin Franklin High School and Lusher Charter School are rated the #1 and #4 best public high schools in the New Orleans Area. Both schools have average ACT scores of 27 and have graduation rates of 95% or over which are far above the states average ACT score of 18.7 and graduation rate of 80.01%. New Orleans has a centralized school enrollment system called OneApp that uses an algorithm to assign students to public schools. However, Benjamin Franklin and Lusher are exempt from OneApp and require entrance testing. New Orleans residents are also allowed to attend any public school, whether it’s through assignment or testing. If a student is a resident of Orleans Parish, they can attend any public school in the parish.

Are we teaching learning or obedience? (Photo: Pexels)

For most New Orleans public schools, 84% of the student body is low income. At Benjamin Franklin, only 24% of the student body is considered low income. Lusher is even lower, with only 15% is low income. The composition of the student body at both schools is not reflective of the population of New Orleans. The composition of the student body cannot be attributed to districting; it can only be attributed to one thing: standardized testing and the inherent economic discrimination this testing carries with it. The SAT is a standardized test administered by the College Board. The SAT is an achievement test that measures a highschool student’s readiness for college and serves as an entrance exam for many colleges. Aside from GPA, extracurricular activities, and high school course load, the SAT is one of the most important aspects of a student’s college application. The SAT can also determine the amount of financial aid a student will receive from the schools they apply to. Generally, the higher a student’s SAT score, the more options they will have for both attending and paying for college.

In 2019, the College Board announced that they were going to assign an adversity score for students who take the SAT. The goal of this adversity score was to capture a student’s socioeconomic background to promote a fair exam that promoted both equality and equity. Though College Board never made it clear exactly how a student’s score would be calculated, they did release that calculations would be made using 15 factors that could be divided into three categories: Neighborhood environment, family environment, and high school environment. The Adversity Score was not factored into a student’s overall SAT score. Rather, it served as a secondary score that gave context for the student’s SAT score. The Adversity Score was rated on a scale from 1100, with 100 denoting the least amount of adversity faced and 1 denoting the most. It also is important to mention that the “Adversity Score” was the first of its kind to not take race into account when measuring a student’s hardships. This is done to prevent racebased affirmative action that is outlawed in some states. However, race is still indirectly used in measuring one’s adversity score, because many of the factors are strongly correlated with race. It is important to still include race, whether directly or indirectly, when measuring one’s adversity, because certain races are more likely to experience stressors that can have an adverse effect on success. The College Board decided to include an adversity score after test scores raised concerns of income inequality influencing test scores over the years. According to the College Board, students that came from wealthy and collegeeducated homes outperformed their peers. When asked about the adversity score, College Board’s chief executive officer, David Coleman, said “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.” Though the Adversity Score was never widely accepted, 50 colleges participated in a beta test in 2018 to test the efficacy and implementation of this scoring system. Yale University was one of the 50 colleges that took part in the beta testing. Yale University is an Ivy League college located in New Haven, Connecticut. It is the third oldest higher education institution in the US and has an undergraduate population of 4,664 students. Since the implementation of the “Adversity Score”, Yale was able to increase the number of lowincome and firstgeneration college students to 20%. Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions said, “This [Adversity Score] is affecting every application we look at,” regarding the beta test for the adversity score. Quinlan also said that the score provided a standardized way of looking at applicants that is very helpful and provides context to each student’s SAT score.
It is noteworthy that Yale is not widely known as a socioeconomically diverse institution. Many of the stereotypes of Yale students include preppy, rich, privileged, and snobby. Although only 2.1% of the Yale student body came from the bottom 20% of all family incomes, the 20% increase in the number of lowincome and firstgeneration students admitted offers hope and guidance for other universities who are hoping to implement similar programs. The College Board’s “Adversity Score” did not come without its backlashes. There was widespread push back to the College Board’s program. People were condemning all things from dangers of boiling a student’s background down to a single number and the capability of the score to be used as an exclusionary means rather than an inclusionary one. However, if there is anything that the “Adversity Score” and Yale’s test run with the program can teach us, it’s that there is hope for a future where standardized testing promotes not just equality, but equity. Benjamin Franklin, Lusher, and Yale have one big thing in common: their lowincome populations are not reflective of the larger population they serve. Much like Benjamin Franklin and Lusher, Yale’s lowincome population is not reflective of the pool of all possible applicants. Yale, of which 2.1% of the population is lowincome, takes applicants from all over the world, but predominantly the US. In comparison to Yale’s lowincome population, the US has a poverty rate of 11.4%. If a school like Yale, a historic school that is known as rich and snoopy, can uproot over 300 years of admissions processes and significantly increase their lowincome populations, then it should be simple for Benjamin Franklin and Lusher, schools that have been open for around 60100 years and serve a large lowincome community, to implement similar testing programs to the “Adversity Score” used by Yale. Benjamin Franklin High School and Lusher Charter also have one big thing that Yale does not: major government funding. Yale is a private institution, meaning that it doesn’t receive primary funding from the state. This could cause an institution to have to admit more highincome students to have the funds to keep the institution running. Benjamin Franklin and Lusher on the other hand, are public institutions, meaning that their primary source of funding comes from the government. In Louisiana, the Minimum Foundation Program, the program through which schools get their money, pooled about $3.9 billion in 2021. While it is unknown exactly how much of these funds went directly to Benjamin Franklin and Lusher, it is known that a portion of it did go to these schools. Unlike Yale, these schools do not have to worry about maintaining a large number of highincome students as a way to collect their primary funding because they get their money through the state. This alone should allow the schools to implement an “Adversity Score” or a similar program to increase their number of lowincome students.
Implementing an “Adversity Score” or a similar program is the most efficient way for Benjamin Franklin and Lusher Charter to counter the economic discrimination that has been so apparent in these institutions. While the College Board’s “Adversity Score” laid the groundwork for similar programs in the future, Benjamin Franklin and Lusher will need to tailor the program to better fit the Orleans Parish. The College Board’s adversity score didn’t directly include questions about race, completely negating racial achievement gaps in education. Racial achievement gaps in education highlight the disproportionalities one’s attainment of education due to their race. Even when income and wealth is comparable, Black, Native American, Latino, and immigrant children for whom English is not a first language have higher dropout rates, lower participation in AP exams, and lower admittance rates to higher status secondary institutions. The city of New Orleans is 59.53% black. Lusher, in contrast, is only 23.3% black. Benjamin Franklin is even less reflective of the population, with only 19.1% of their population being black. In order to have a study body that is reflective of the demographics of New Orleans, Benjamin Franklin, and Lusher need to not just implement the College Board’s “Adversity Score”, but rather, a new system of looking at a student’s adversity that takes into account socioeconomic status and race. This new system of scoring is the only way to get a comprehensive view of a student’s hardships and have a student body that is reflective of the community these two schools serve. This piece was written as a part of the “Solution Journalism: Why Aren’t you Fixing This?” series for Kelley Crawford’s Alternative Journalism course at Tulane University. Sources
“Are the Top New Orleans Public Schools Weeding Out Certain Kids?” WWNO New Orleans Public Radio, Accessed 30 Jan. 2018. Barry, Jennifer. The Effects of SocioEconomic Status on Academic Achievement. 2005, Belkin, Douglas. “SAT to Give Students ‘Adversity Score’ to Capture Social and Economic Background.” Wall Street Journal, Accessed 16 May 2019. Isaacs, Julia B. Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children. Center on Children and Families at Brookings, Mar. 2012., Williams, David R. “Stress and the Mental Health of Populations of Color: Advancing Our Understanding of Racerelated Stressors.” Journal of health and social behavior vol. 59,4 (2018): 466485. doi:10.1177/0022146518814251


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